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I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” It’s not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (I’m an Arizona kid after all). It’s my favorite because it was my dad’s favorite.
Here’s a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. I’m pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeral… and maybe the only time it’s ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that it’s Christmastime again I’m hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.
This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar “status” as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesn’t happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.
When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesn’t matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.
To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.
Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching “Elf” and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?
As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people what’s “OK” for them to do Jewishly. I do feel it’s my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape families’ lives.
When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that he’s gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parent’s family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.
Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. I’ve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. I’ve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.
I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.
Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I don’t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didn’t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family member’s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families don’t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Judaism from on high (I’m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. It’s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sport’s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declared—that’s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed “secular American.” Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldn’t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription. I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizable Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, let’s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that “everyone” will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire “bad” or “wrong” or for “people who just want an easy way out,” then the people will make their own decisions and they won’t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.
This piece is a heartfelt, fictionalized snapshot of one person’s experience. It is not meant to be a judgment about having a Christmas tree. I would love to read about other people’s experiences…
Sarah had only been to her dad’s house a couple of times since he married Joanne, and her heart raced as she rang the bell. Quincy’s barking calmed her some. She knew that dog loved her.
Joanne wasn’t home, but her presence filled the rooms. Sarah saw her in the framed family photos of strangers, and her dad. She saw her in the decorative plate collection framing the kitchen archway, and in the silver thimbles on tiny shelves in the dining room. And she was in the tree…
Sarah had always loved Christmas trees. She loved helping her friends decorate them, and she loved hearing stories about treasured ornaments. She loved the way they smelled and the way the lights looked in the dark. She loved the warm cozy feeling they evoked in Christmas movies, but this tree was different.
This tree kicked her in the heart. This tree was proof of just how far her dad had strayed from their family. She didn’t see the dad who wouldn’t let her quit Hebrew school in this house. She couldn’t find the dad who only let her date Jewish boys in this house. She couldn’t find the dad who had raised her in this house.
Sarah was surprised by the strength of her reaction. The tree brought tears to her eyes. She sat on the floor with Quincy, and buried her face for a lingering moment in his soft fur.
She wanted her dad to be happy, but she also wanted her dad’s house to feel like home. She knew it never would. She also knew that she would make her peace with it, but for now, it just felt like another loss.
Two years ago, I was sitting at a table on a warm summer evening with five young couples. They were the newest cohort of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s “Love and Religion” workshop for interfaith couples. None of the couples had ever met before, and everyone listened quietly as we went around the table and each couple introduced themselves, sharing how they’d met and what had originally attracted them to each other.
Then I asked each couple to share when the issue of religion first came up in their relationship. Sarah (all names have been changed) said: “It was the first December. We’d just moved in together. He really wanted to have a Christmas tree and I made it very clear that I would never have a Christmas tree in my home.”
“I’m with you!” said Joan, who was sitting across from Sarah. “I’d never allow that! It’s just wrong for a Jewish person to have a Christmas tree in their home!” And with that, Sarah and Joan high five’d across the table… newly bonded by their refusal to let their significant others have Christmas trees.
Meanwhile, I watched another couple, Amy and Dan, squirm uncomfortably in their seats. It was Amy and Dan’s turn to share next and I happened to know that after much discussion Dan had agreed to Amy’s request to have a Christmas tree in their home the prior December, even though it made Dan, who’s Jewish, uncomfortable. Realizing that I needed to jump in as facilitator, I reminded the couples of one of the “ground rules” of our group: That we weren’t discussing what was “right or wrong” or judging each other, but creating a safe space for discussion for all of the couples to communicate openly and figure out what was best for them. Fortunately, we were able to move on, and the five couples bonded over the following weeks, sharing openly about the challenges and blessings of their interfaith relationships.
I’ve been thinking back to that summer evening a lot in recent weeks—as the topic of Christmas trees has come up multiple times in my meetings with interfaith couples… even though it’s July!
What is it about Christmas trees? Why are they so often such a big source of conflict for interfaith couples? Here’s some of what I’ve learned from working with many Christian/Jewish couples.
For the Christian partners:
-Some of their best childhood memories are of Christmas. Christmas trees remind them of family togetherness and warmth. They often want to have a Christmas tree not just for their own sake, but so that their children can experience the magical feeling that they had when they woke up on Christmas morning and found lots of presents under their tree. So many families have special traditions and rituals for decorating their trees, opening presents, etc. Parents who have wonderful memories of Christmas as a child often want to be able to re-create their experiences for their own children, even if their children are being raised as Jews.
-Many (though certainly not all) parents who grew up celebrating Christmas say that they don’t think of a Christmas tree as “religious.” They can’t understand why their Jewish partner is uncomfortable having something in their home that to them is all about family togetherness and fond memories, and doesn’t have religious significance.
For the Jewish partners:
-They often see having a Christmas tree as “selling out” their Judaism; the final step to full assimilation into the majority Christian culture. No matter what Jewish practices they do or don’t follow, they view having a Christmas tree in their own home as a boundary that they’re not comfortable crossing.
-Many Jews are concerned about what other Jews (often their own parents) will think or how they’ll feel coming into their home if it has a Christmas tree.
Recently, Sue and Mark, an interfaith couple, shared with me the frustration they’re both feeling as they discuss whether or not to have a Christmas tree in their home this December. Sue lamented: “It’s July, and we find ourselves sitting on the beach arguing about Christmas.” She said that every time they start to discuss whether or not they’ll have a Christmas tree, they both start talking over each other and just shut each other out. Mark looked at me and wondered: “What should we do? What’s the right solution?”
Of course only Sue and Mark can determine what’s right for them as a couple, and what’s right for them this December may not be what’s right for them next December—and it certainly may not be what’s right for a different couple. But there’s one thing I could tell them is right for sure: to take the time to truly listen to each other and to each try to understand the emotions behind what their partner is saying.
Whether or not they’ll have a Christmas tree may be something that they finally resolve and come to agree on over time, or perhaps the issue will be a source of conflict for years. But if they can each respect where the other is coming from—and discuss the issue from a place of love and respect rather than anger and intolerance—then their relationship will be much healthier… in July—and in December.
If you are an interfaith couple where one partner is Jewish and one is Christian, do you plan to have a Christmas tree? Has having/not having a tree been a source of conflict in your relationship? Do you have other reasons than the ones I’ve mentioned above for having/not having a Christmas tree?
We tend to ask our children the same questions over and over which are super hard to answer. Educators and parents ask, “What are you thankful for?” This questions is asked repeatedly around Thanksgiving time. Children say, “my parents, my home, food, friends and toys.”
Ask your child now. What did he or she say? A parent volunteer told me that when the librarian asked the kids this question, my 6-year-old said, “the solar system.” That was an unusual answer. I’m not sure where that one came from. Maybe there was a poster of outer-space or a book nearby that caught her eye?
There is nothing wrong with this question but it is very hard to tap into real feelings of gratitude, appreciation and thanks and then to be able to articulate those feelings. Sometimes I ask my kids what makes them happy and that seems easier for them to talk about. Gratitude has to be cultivated and modeled.
As we move into the Hanukkah and Christmas season, I asked my 6-year-old and 8-year-old what they know about these holidays. You would think that being children of two rabbis and living in a heavily Jewish suburb would sway or weight their answers some. Yet, they love their idea of Christmas even though they have had limited personal experience with it (much to their chagrin).
When I asked them what they think about when I say the word, “Christmas” they beamed with joy, lit up and said, “presents!” Now, my pastor friends and practicing Christians may be cringing. These are not the holy parts of this holiday. In addition, these are children who have lots of stuff. They are not lacking for presents. However, the idea of getting a gift is ever thrilling.
They don’t have much first-hand experience with a religious and/or a cultural Christmas. (Hopefully their experiences will vary and multiply as they get older and they will come to value volunteering during the time of darkness and need for so many, and will be inclined to cherish the priceless and precious gifts of time and presence more than material things). Their ideas about Christmas fun come primarily from TV and I’m not sure where else.
Then I asked them to tell me about Hanukkah. They said lighting the menorah and presents are what come to mind. My children don’t like latkes. Or matzah ball soup, lox or noodle kugel. I know, it’s just wrong, but I’m being as honest as possible here. They do like Elf on the Shelf, Christmas cookies and the lights, beauty and magic of Christmas.
When I reminded them and gave hints, they were able to conjure up details about the miracle of the oil lasting and about the re-dedication of the Temple. They know the role of the shamash, or helper candle that lights the other ones. They know how to play dreidel and play it with zeal. They love games! They love getting together with friends and family over Hanukkah. They sing Hanukkah songs and enjoy going to synagogue where each family lights a menorah and it glows with warmth and love.
I don’t think my children are more spoiled or more materialistic than others. They love life, and they love surprises and being playful. They love their friends, feel connected to their family and enjoy school and learning. They generally are into things.
Am I worried that my children—who I hope will look to Judaism to give them order, meaning, sacred purpose, connectedness, hope, values, inspiration, pride, and so much more—love aspects of Christmas? No, not one bit. I do want them to be literate in tenets of Christianity too. I want them to know more about Jesus. They will learn history as they mature and will have context and gain perspective and understanding. I don’t want them to feel threatened by Christianity and Christmas. I want them to be able to ask their own questions and take Christian theology and beliefs seriously. I want them to understand that there is religion and there is culture and there is secularism, and how each of these aspects inform a person’s expression. I don’t ever want Hanukkah and Christmas to compete.
I think that making a child raised with Judaism feel badly about liking Christmas is not a great approach. It won’t create closeness with Judaism. The main thing is to keep asking our children what they think and teaching our children as much as we can so that they can create well-rounded notions of these two holidays, central to our American psyche. Knowledge is good. Not being shamed for loving parts of another religion’s holidays is good.
Let’s stop asking rote questions and expecting rote answers. Your kids will tell you what they honestly know and think and it will open your eyes to their little developing souls.
When I was growing up, my parents threw the most elegant Hanukkah parties. My mom is a decorator at her core and relished the opportunity to throw a party with pizazz. There was fancy juice for the kids, our best dresses and most of all, a gorgeously decorated house. Down the bannister streamed a garland she would create—some years a deep green theme with flowers or elegant dreidels, other years covered in white like the snow we would never see in Southern California. The entire house became transformed by whatever festive theme she had chosen for that year.
Year after year, relatives, friends and our synagogue’s rabbi criticized her elaborate decorations as too Christmassy. Not one to shrink away from a challenge, she quickly quipped that Christmas had not cornered the market on decorations.
But then one year, there were angels. She streamed them up and down the bannister. This time, her critics were livid. They claimed that this was now, officially, a Christmas party. My mother retorted that angels were ours. They originate in our Torah—they visited our patriarchs Abraham and Sarah, ascended and descended Jacob’s ladder, and there were the angels Michael, Rafael, Gabriel and Uriel. Cherubim were even pictured above the holy ark in the Temple in Jerusalem. [More on Jewish angels can be found here.]
She argued that many seasonal symbols like poinsettias, snow and even her angels, had been co-opted by American-style Christmas. She didn’t see why Jews should be deprived of them. There was nothing left that was “kosher” for Hanukkah decorating if she obeyed the ever-growing list of off-limits symbols and colors. Yes, there were paper menorahs and the like. But she hated the kitschy Jewish stuff most people hung and waited for the one holiday when she could get away with more of a flare.
What were her skeptics, many of whom weren’t so traditionally Jewish themselves, worried about? I think her flare set off a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe for them, Christmas was an annual symbol of how our tiny Jewish minority is threatened by a dominant Christian culture—and my mom was blurring that line. Maybe attending this Hanukkah party represented their need to be in a distinctly Jewish place during the onslaught of the Christmas commercial season. Perhaps her decorations were encroaching on their Jewish particularism.
Of course, Hanukkah only rose to its prominent position in Jewish American life because of Christmas. Anywhere else in the world, Hanukkah is the most minor of Jewish holidays. But here in the United States, we felt it needed to combat the red and green tinsel, and we lifted up from the complicated story of Hanukkah a simple message of religious tolerance.
My mom wanted in on the fun. It is a little sad to be part of a society in which the majority is participating in something magical while we merely peer in at it from outside as a matter of principle. We are confused as a group about what to do with Christmas as it morphs from a religious holiday into an American cultural festival. And now that our families are more diverse, that confusion is only exacerbated. A tree—which seems like it should be just that and no more—often holds a lot of history for Jews. Participating in Christmas can serve as a symbol that we have given up trying to be unique. At worst, it can feel like Jews have caved to the majority: the very majority that many times throughout history tried to obliterate us. Yet for someone who grew up with Christmas, the prospect of giving it up means sacrificing a powerful sense of comfort, love, memories and family.
What I advocate most for interfaith couples is that they listen to each other as they describe their needs at the holidays. I often hear people talking past each other about what they can or cannot tolerate. But they rarely dig deeply enough into the particulars of why they need what they need at this time of year.
Even for families who have it all figured out, emotions at this time of year can set off new discussions and tensions. It is one of the few times of the year when extended family enter the picture and have needs and expectations of their own. Whatever your Decembers are like, this is a great time to open up about what the season felt like for you as a child and what emotions—positive, negative or neutral—they bring up as adults. No matter what you choose as your own family traditions, getting that clarity about what you expect and need will help make the season what you want it to be.
Today Jewcy thoughtfully reported on the recent break-up of Bachelorette star Andi Dorfman and her chosen suitor Josh Murray. While this is not a surprise (few Bachelor/Bachelorette engagements lead to successful marriages), we were wondering how this interfaith couple would go about planning their wedding ceremony and how religion would play into their lives together. Though this doesn’t tell us anything definitive about their own plans for religion (if they had any), from the look of Andi’s Instagram profile, there was lots of Christmas holiday celebrating with Josh’s family and no mention of Hanukkah.
The couple put out the following statement: “After several months of being engaged and working on our relationship, we have decided that it’s best for both of us to go our separate ways,” reads the statement. “We are very sad that it has come to this point, but this is what’s best for both of us individually.”
Elissa Goldstein pretty much sums it up below, wondering what role religion played in their pre-engagement conversations and why religion is so under wraps on the show. In any case, we say talk, talk, talk, and then talk some more before getting engaged!
“Here at Jewcy HQ, we can’t help but wonder how much the couple’s religious differences might have contributed to the split—she’s Jewish (and seemingly pretty secular), he’s a devout Christian (with Jewish heritage). Close readers of Tova Ross’ season 10 recaps will recall that the show’s producers conveniently elided these facts in their race to the ratings altar. We never saw Andi or Josh (or any of the suitors) discuss hot-button topics like politics or religion—you know, the sort of stuff couples should talk about before getting engaged. Did these conversations take place? Perhaps, but we’ll probably never find out, which is kind of a shame. Regardless of the reason for the split (hey, maybe Andi just didn’t want to marry into a family of Chiefs fans), it’s weird—even remiss—that The Bachelor franchise has an embargo on conversations about interfaith dating.”
The other night, my husband was watching arguably his favorite show, Shark Tank. He shouted from the other room (literally, the only other room in our wee Boston apartment), “Lindsey, come see this!” I thought maybe I knew someone on the show. Turned out, in a way, I did. It was a holiday episode featuring some interfaith holiday items, ones I’m familiar with. Pitching his company was Neal Hoffman of Mensch on a Bench—it’s a Hanukkah plush toy that looks like an old rabbi modeled after the Christmas Elf on a Shelf (sound a little scary? One of the Sharks, Barbara Corcoran, pointed out as much, and was ready to give The Mensch a makeover). After Hoffman explained his own interfaith background and made a deal with Sharks Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, we caught up with someone from Season 5 who made a deal with his Star of David “Hanukkah Tree Topper.”
I loved that Shark Tank was doing an interfaith episode before Hanukkah, and here at IFF, we don’t tell people they’re doing religion “wrong” or which way is the right way. Whatever way you want to connect with Judaism is great! But we also haven’t been advertising what seem to me to be Christmas items for Jews. Personally, I can see how an interfaith family might end up with all kinds of Jewish items from around their home on their Christmas tree, but something about purchasing a Jewish symbol as a tree topper might cross the line for some people and, truth: makes me cringe a bit. Same with an Elf on the Shelf for Hanukkah. That said, lots of people love it—and I do mean it when I say that you should enjoy any way you like to celebrate the holidays!
Regardless of what any of us think, this episode of Shark Tank drove home the fact that Jewish and interfaith merchandise for the holidays could quickly find their place in our local Target, CVS, maybe even the Christmas Tree Shops. So I may as well weigh in now, and say that if more toys and decorations are being created for Hanukkah, I’d like to see some that are uniquely related to Hanukkah.
Instead of blending Christmas and Hanukkah into one holiday, why not respect them each for what they are, and come up with some fun new ways to celebrate Hanukkah for families of all kinds? Is there a candy menorah? Maybe one that doubles as a musical instrument? Musical candles that play the blessings? An app for kids that’s actually fun and entertaining? Some plush singing Maccabees? If any of you entrepreneurs out there capitalize on any of these ideas, just send the royalty checks my way. Thanks.
What did you think of the Shark Tank episode and interfaith holiday merchandise? If you missed it, you can catch the Battle Over Mensch on a Bench here.
When I was very small, my family used to light our Hanukkah menorah alongside our decorated Christmas tree. Christmas was never a religious holiday for us but we decorated and listened to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and my mother filled stockings with our names on them with precious goodies. I was one of those obnoxious kids who bragged about getting Christmas presents AND Hanukkah presents! But when our family decided to join a synagogue we decided to formally end Christmas in our home. For my younger sister and I, this meant no more tree, no more decorations around our house, no more snowy Snoopy musical figurine spinning slowly, singing carols and certainly no more bragging rights. But we were young and we adapted…for the most part. But a few traditions were harder to let go of than others.
My sister happened to be very attached to the shiny twinkly lights of Christmas and one year, she badgered my parents as the holiday season began about hanging Christmas lights. But they had made a choice for our family and stuck with it: We were Jewish, so no Christmas. But could there be a compromise? As it turns out, there was, in the form of a string of Hanukkah lights.
My sister happily draped these lights all over her room and even came up with the cleverest of names. They were her “Israel-lights.” Interfaith pun extraordinaire.
My mom always loved to seek out all the fun little trinkets to stuff into our stockings and so she continued to do so, every year, without fail. When each of us were first born, she had gone to a craft fair and bought us beautiful hand knit stockings and had sewn our names on them herself. One year we were in Switzerland on vacation over Christmas. My sister and I were convinced that the stockings must have stayed home, but lo and behold, Christmas morning, they magically appeared, full of Swiss treats. I also assumed that once I began studying to be a rabbi, perhaps my stocking days would be over, but I should have known to never underestimate my mom. My first year of rabbinical school I was living in Jerusalem and my parents came to visit me at the end of the first semester in December and what was packed in my mom’s suitcase? You guessed it! My stocking, filled with treats from home. I’m pretty sure I am the only rabbi out there who gets a Christmas stocking every year (though if that’s not the case, by all means let me know in the comments!).
I could argue that this particular family tradition says more about my incredible mother than anything else, but it’s also just a practical reminder that families and traditions are ever evolving and adapting.
My family made it work because my very smart parents stuck to their guns but also allowed for our family to make these sort of meaningful compromises. I don’t really remember that much about our transition from a house with a Christmas tree to a house without, but I do remember vividly the Israel-lights and I am still very excited each year to get my stocking. There is no one right way to celebrate holidays or life events—just find a way that feels authentic to the choices you have made in your family’s life. I remember the holiday seasons of my childhood with joy and fondness rather than strife because I was taught that we could always find a way to celebrate who we were and who we had become.
Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partner’s parents who aren’t Jewish for the holiday season. I tell our kids, as many Jewish parents in interfaith relationships do, that we are helping their grandparents celebrate Christmas. It may sound a little weak but it is really true. Their grandparents would be sad to not have family around their tree, as would my partner. And our Jewish kids love getting a taste of Christmas even though they know it’s not “our” holiday.
But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didn’t want them to receive too much at this time of year. Did they really need the eight nights of presents I grew up with if they were about to receive mounds of gifts a few weeks later? And what if the holidays overlapped? It would send a message of overabundance I try to temper all year long and would feel antithetical to the values I’m trying to instill.
I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of pitting the two holidays against each other. When Hanukkah and Christmas compete, Hanukkah loses every time. It is a minor Jewish holiday only made grand here in the United States by its proximity to Christmas. I’m not a fan of lifting it up in importance to make a point. Instead, in our family, we expend that energy by celebrating the more important Jewish holidays and Shabbat year round.
So the question remained: What would I want my kids to associate with Hanukkah as they grow up?
The answer came to me one year when I was doing my end-of-year philanthropic donations. I thought about the proximity of Hanukkah and the symbol of gelt, and the larger societal messages about December as a time of giving. As I waded through the mail, I recalled the piles of leaflets on my kitchen table growing up and how much I learned from my parents teaching me about the organizations they support. The timing was perfect! I decided to make Hanukkah into a holiday of giving—not receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice” and that philanthropic giving is a way we can help bring justice to the world. At their ages, they loved the idea that life could be fairer.
I gathered all of the leaflets we received from organizations and asked the kids what they thought. Which communities would they want to support? What makes them upset as they look around their world, from natural disasters to homelessness to our treatment of the environment? We poked around online as they thought about people who had had a particularly rough year. I told them how much we had to give, and asked them to make the tough choices about how to divide it up. Do we give a lot to a few places and really make an impact? Or give a little to many organizations so they know we care about them? Each year as they grow in maturity, I give them new problems to solve. Now, we put coins in a tzedakah box throughout the year before lighting candles on Friday night and they know that this money will also go to the Hanukkah giving pot.
Their choices have evolved over time. The first time we did this, they were excited about Sesame Workshop because bright red Elmo was (wisely) featured on the organization’s envelope. Next was their Jewish summer camp that suffered fire damage. Then we tackled the question of whether to give to local food banks or to hunger advocacy organizations trying to stamp out poverty from the top down. Would they rather support people in their neighborhood, in other regions of the country or the elsewhere in the world? The year DOMA was struck down, we discussed giving to Lambda Legal, an organization defending cases for the LGBT community. As they become more concerned about the environment, we have looked for organizations that address their concerns. This year, we will add to the list the importance of InterfaithFamily, helping families like ours navigate the holidays! (Yes, that was a not-so-subtle plug!) There is so much to do that it easily lasts eight nights.
Who knows what messages my kids will take away from the holiday season as they grow up? What will Christmas represent? What will they remember most about Hanukkah? I hope that by consciously highlighting tzedakah as a specific value, they will take the best from both of the December holidays that are part of their lives.